Songs of the Matriarchs: The Saharawis

Starry Nights in Western Sahara
Starry Nights in Western Sahara (Rounder Records, 2003)

Song of Umm Dalaila: The Story of the Saharawis (documentary film, 1996)

Beat of Distant Hearts (documentary film, 2000) By Danielle Smith

A bit of history: the documentary films

In 1992, documentary filmmaker Danielle Smith visited a refugee camp in SW
Algeria where the Saharawis have been residing since 1975. Originally from
Western Sahara, which borders Morocco on the south and Mauritania on the west
and set near the Atlantic Ocean, this nomadic tribe of Berber and Arabic descent
suffered under Spanish colonialism for 90 years. This 90-year rule ended after a
rebellion by the Saharawis who formed the Polisario Front (nation) in mid
1970’s. However, the Saharawis’ victory was short lived and Spain struck an
illegal deal, dividing up Western Sahara between Morocco, Mauritania and taking
35% of phosphate rights for itself. This led the Moroccan government to invade
Western Sahara while imprisoning, murdering and displacing thousands of
Saharawis. The Polisario moved to the center of the Western Sahara where they
set up camp, only to be bombed with cluster bombs and napalm with military aid
from the US and France. 170,000 Saharawis fled to Algeria and currently 200,000
Saharawis reside in four refugee camps or tent cities in SW Algeria. They are
divided from their families by a 2,400 km-long “Berlin Wall” (built by Morocco,
a country that currently illegally occupies Western Sahara).A 16-year war raged on between Morocco and the Polisario Front until a cease-fire
in 1992 when the United Nations passed a referendum in favor of the Saharawis.
However, the Moroccan government has posed various obstacles and the UN has not
been able to carry out a resolution that would allow the Saharawis to return to
their homeland as liberated people. Danielle Smith documents the history and
political plight of the Polisario in two documentaries, Song of Umm Dalaila: The
Story of the Saharawis (1996) and Beat of Distant Hearts (2000). And while the
stories captured in her films appear tragic to most eyes, a silver lining does
exist beyond the black clouds of oppression and suffering.

Similarities between Saharawis and Tuaregs

Similar to stories of other groups languishing in refugee camps, the Saharawis
have used their time wisely. Similarities between the Saharawis and the Tuareg (Tamashek)
who endured persecution by the Malian government in the not too distant past can
be detected here. Both nomadic groups created music and art from their struggles.
The desert blues band Tinariwen who formed in a rebel camp (Libya) in 1982,
employ electric guitars in their western inspired music and the Saharawis have
also adopted electric guitar, bass and electric organ in their repertoire
regarding liberation. And similar to the Tamashek folkloric Ensemble Tartit,
Saharawis women also sing in a call & response style, accompanied by hand claps
and drums and on occasion bring in string instruments. While the groups sing in
different languages and broach different subject matter, the Saharawis women
vocalists and groups formed in refugee camps similar to Tartit who formed in a
refugee camp in Mauritania. However, I realize that these similarities between
the nomadic groups are superficial and an expert ethnomusicologist is better
equipped to detect subtle differences than I am.

Other similarities between the two cultures are the strong roles that women
perform in their respective societies, especially when it comes to education of
the children. Unlike many Muslim societies, Tuareg and Saharawis women are
permitted to divorce their husbands. While I am not knowledgeable about the
exact role of Tuareg women, Smith reveals the role of Saharawis women in her two
documentaries, with a greater emphasis in the Song of Umm Dalaila. Women are
shown running schools, sanitation projects, organizing daycare, vocational
training centers and schools (kindergarten through high school) in the camps.
Under the Polisario, Saharawis women literacy level leapt from 1 to 90% and the
women will continue to play a strong role in their communities after the
Polisario nation returns to its homeland. However, most impressive, the
Saharawis have set up gardens and other farming in the harsh desert climate
where they reside proving their determination and resourcefulness once again.

Starry Nights in Western Sahara

Poetry, music and painting reflect both the Saharawis political plight and
celebration of their nation. The music is often folkloric with an emphasis on
tradition and a nod to classical Arabic music. But in line with contemporary
times, Saharawis musicians often back their vocalists (women) with electric
guitars, bass and electric organ. After all, many of the youth had been sent
away to study in Algeria and Latin American countries where they would have
acquired modern influences. And older folk, such as the vocalist Umm Dalaila
featured in both of Smith’s documentaries had toured abroad with the group she
joined upon arriving at the refugee camp. Obviously, this would also bring
modern influences to Saharawis music.

The CD, Starry Nights in Western Sahara, produced and recorded by
Randy Barnwell with liner notes by Danielle Smith, provides a field recording
sampling both traditional and contemporary songs that possess social-political
messages. In the past, when women could only sing at weddings (Spanish
colonialism) and songs revolved around lighter themes, today women sing in
public and perform music to motivate members of their society to express their
political dream of returning to their homeland as liberated people and as their
own nation.

Starry Nights includes 11 tracks, featuring Umm Dalaila, Mariam Hassan
and Umm Merkiya on lead vocals (although Dalaila and Hassan’s names are not
listed in the CD notes). Some of the songs feature lead vocals and a chorus
engaging in call & response vocals with syncopated hand claps and bass sounding
drums, a noted example is the track, Everyone Celebrate. An Old Man, Sweet Young
Girl and Bani sample traditional fare. The Sahara Is Not For Sale, with guitar,
flute and percussion and The People’s Aspiration represent more contemporary
sounding songs.

The first half of Oh, People Celebrate Your Independence features a traditional
song sung in classical Arabic from the pre-Islamic era and the second half of
the song, marks a political anthem. The traditional love song The Dream is sung
in Hassaniya and the instrumental Wedding Song features percussion (drums and
claps) with string instruments (although I can’t tell you which string
instruments appear on the track).


I would never condone the Moroccan king for invading Western Sahara or any
nation bent on dominating other cultures, but I do see a silver lining created
out of this horrendous situation. The Saharawis have managed to create a
matriarchal-type situation that is based on cooperation and equality. They have
included healthcare, education and the arts on their priority list and created a
society where women play strong leadership roles. They have organized and
rallied their newly formed nation (less than 30 years old, but a nation in
exile) as preparation for returning to their rightful homeland and they are a
people firmly rooted in solidarity.

Perhaps most of the world is ignoring their plight because many nations would
rather keep singing the same song called world domination. However, if we truly
want to live in a peaceful world, then it is time for us to return to a place of
humility and learn a thing or two from nomadic, tribal and indigenous people. I
believe that we will all be better off once we adopt a more humble stance and
move from patriarchal domination to matriarchal cooperation. Of course only time
will tell if the Polisario will stay grounded in a cooperative society once they
return to their homeland. Similar to the artist in the film, (Beat of Distant
Hearts) who draws a lizard in the sand, the winds of change could also erase
even the most rooted society. In any case, nothing ever remains the same and we
must all stay conscious if we choose to live in a more compassionate era. But
for now, the Saharawis gives us a good example of a society with healthy
priorities, if only permitted to return to the Western Sahara.


The Saharawis people (news and updates):

Nubenegra, producers of various Saharawi CDs:

Compliments of Cranky Crow World Music

Author: cranky crow